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Court: City Judge O’Neill to face federal charges

Municipal Court Judge Joseph J. O’Neill soon will be charged in a federal criminal case, a state judicial court said in a filing Friday.

The Court of Judicial Discipline said in a motion that Assistant U.S. Attorney Richard Barrett told the panel about the federal charges O’Neill will face.

Gregory J. Pagano, O’Neill’s criminal defense lawyer, declined comment, but another attorney for O’Neill, Samuel Stretton, confirmed that charges are expected. Patricia Hartman, spokeswoman for the U.S. Attorney’s Office, also declined comment.

In the motion, Barrett said FBI Special Agent Eric H. Ruona, the lead agent in the federal investigation, would not be able to testify about O’Neill’s alleged wrongdoing. Ruona was scheduled to be the chief witness in the judicial panel’s efforts to discipline O’Neill.

O’Neill, 65, who was appointed to Municipal Court in 2007 by Gov. Ed Rendell, had been facing a Jan. 29 disciplinary hearing on charges that he gave special treatment to a Democratic Party operative who had been sued in a 2011 small-claims case. The judicial hearing has been postponed indefinitely because of the federal investigation.

The alleged behind-the-scenes treatment went to party fund-raiser Samuel G. Kuttab, who was convicted in September on one count of mail fraud for using his influence to fix the case that O’Neill handled. Kuttab was given a six-month prison sentence.

Kuttab’s first contact in the 2011 case was through Municipal Court Judge Joseph C. Waters Jr., who is serving a two-year federal prison sentence for his part in the scheme.

According to Kuttab’s case and judicial court records, the scheme unfolded in this way:

Montgomery County-based Houdini Lock & Safe sued Kuttab’s family’s management company for $2,700. Kuttab twice approached Waters, who called O’Neill and asked him for help. The conversation was picked up by an FBI wiretap.

“He’s a friend of mine, so if you can, take a hard look at it,” Waters is heard on the tape saying to O’Neill, who is heard agreeing to help.

In the end, Kuttab’s family negotiated to pay the Houdini lock company $600.

Kuttab previously had served prison time for tax evasion for failing to report income from his family’s multimillion-dollar contract for security work with the city.

The disciplinary court’s Jan. 29 hearing for O’Neill was put on hold because federal regulations prohibit FBI agents from testifying about ongoing investigations.

Despite the cancellation of that hearing, the disciplinary panel on Feb. 2 ordered O’Neill’s paychecks stopped.

O’Neill previously had been suspended with pay after Waters pleaded guilty.

Stretton, who is handling O’Neill’s case before the judicial board, said he will appeal the pay suspension. Taxpayers are still covering the cost of O’Neill’s health-care insurance, Stretton said.

O’Neill is not the only Municipal Court judge facing troubles.

On the same day that the judicial panel stopped O’Neill’s paychecks, it also halted paychecks going to suspended Judge Dawn Segal.

Segal was also caught up in the FBI investigation. But in her disciplinary case last month, FBI agent Ruona was allowed to testify about her alleged wrongdoing.

Segal also was alleged to have improperly discussed Kuttab’s case with Waters and failed to report the allegedly improper contact.

She and Waters also allegedly discussed a felony gun case she was hearing, and Segal downgraded the charges to a misdemeanor after their conversation, according to disciplinary records.

The panel has not issued a ruling in her case.

Her attorney, Stuart L. Haimowitz, said Segal had “fully cooperated with the federal investigation into her conduct.”

The Court of Judicial Discipline did not post the information about O’Neill’s upcoming arrest on its website until the Inquirer requested a copy of the document.

Officials for the court disciplinary system said they did not know why the filing was not posted, as typically is done in disciplinary cases.

Hours after the newspaper received a copy of the document, it was posted.

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